Are You Considering a Heritage Turkey for the Holiday?

Is a heritage turkey the right one for your table? These birds offer deep, old-fashioned flavor like our great-grandparents enjoyed. Read on to learn about why old-breed turkeys are showing up at more holiday meals than ever.

What is Heritage-Breed Turkey?

Heritage turkeys are old standard breeds, not modern experiments, that were developed for specific traits over generations and selected as the “Standard of Perfection” by the American Poultry Association.

Today, there are only a few heritage breeds including Standard Bronze (actually a cross between the Narragansett and Eastern wild breeds developed by early settlers in Rhode Island in the 1700s), Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, Narragansett, and White Holland.

In order to qualify as heritage breeds, the birds must be able to naturally mate – which seems like a given. But most of the White Broad-breasted breed turkeys that end up on our tables are bred to grow so large they can’t even engage in that natural behavior.

The turkeys must be able to live seven to nine years and grow slowly. These old breeds cannot be pushed to grow quickly the way factory-farmed turkeys are.

Heritage and wild turkeys thrive when raised free-range, and fed natural whole-grain diets, without any antibiotics or hormones. The freedom to exercise means they have more muscle than conventional birds. Processing is often done by hand instead of a machine.

A Bourbon Red turkey.

Eat the Breeds to Save Them

The only way to keep old breeds from vanishing is to make sure they are valued. Farmers will continue to raise heritage breeds if there is a market for them.

There has been an increasing interest in traditional foods, heirloom fruits and vegetables, and heritage breeds, so the demand for wild and heritage-breed turkeys has been rising. Supplying enough has sometimes been challenging because there are few farms raising authentic heritage breeds.

D’Artagnan offers a limited number of heritage breed turkeys each year so that professional and home chefs can enjoy these old-breed birds for the holidays. Our heritage turkeys are from Narragansett and Bourbon Red stock, which are recognized by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as genuine heritage breeds.

Livestock Conservancy Logo.jpg

Cooking Your Heritage Turkey

With their rich-tasting meat and moister overall texture, it’s easy to assume that preparation techniques for heritage would be exactly the same as those used for commercial birds. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that these birds are leaner with a higher percentage of dark meat. This natural balance of dark to white meat actually makes preparation easier. Since white meat always cooks faster than dark, the closer the ratio, the easier it is to roast evenly. Brining, barding, and basting are common techniques in preparing a tasty heritage bird.

The breast meat is smaller (after all, it hasn’t been artificially enlarged) and needs protection during cooking. Covering the breast meat with aluminum foil, or cheesecloth soaked in cooking oil while cooking is strongly advised. Remove the covering about 30 minutes before the turkey is done so the breast will brown. Frequent basting is a must unless you rub truffle butter or olive oil under the skin over the breast, which makes the birds self-basting. Because they are leaner and tend to be smaller, cooking at low temperatures for a longer time is also suggested.

bresse-style-poached-roasted-turkey-recipeOne of Ariane’s all-time favorites, this is a traditional recipe from Bresse, the poultry capital of France, which involves poaching the bird before roasting it to maintain perfect moisture and texture, and get crispy skin.

This GQ article – 5 Top Chefs on How Not to F*** Up Your Thanksgiving Turkey – has some great advice and a recommendation from a longtime D’Artagnan friend.

You can find a range of organic or heritage turkey online—I recommend D’Artagnan. –  Jean-Georges Vongerichten

We advise pre-ordering your holiday bird today and scheduling delivery just before Thanksgiving. Our small farms raise a finite number of birds each season, and we sell out fast this time of year.

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